For devout upstanding citizens who had decided way back in the hippie ‘60s that Greenwich Village was an abominable den of sin, Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was a flaming and perverse poke in the eye — or an argument clincher when it landed on MacDougal Street in 1985. The New York Times raved, the extravagant little trio of sketches became a cult obsession, and Vampire Lesbians had a five-year run.
Busch slipped away from his castmates when the review came out in the early morning after the Provincetown Playhouse premiere and had a good cry. Why did this diva desecrate his mascara? His career in theatre was now assured. He would write more outrageous comedies and send-ups that he, as the prima donna, could then cross-dress and slay in, most famously Psycho Beach Party.
Vampire Lesbians made it to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club in 1991, after the slightly wholesomer Psycho Beach had paved the way during the previous year. George Brown directed this orgy of sacrilege with fiendish glee, while Innovative Theatre co-founder Alan Poindexter starred with Keith Bulla as the titular vamps.
With the Rev. Joe Chambers carrying the torch for fundamentalism in the wake of Jim Bakker’s disgrace, Banktown was still a very Christian place. It was my sacred duty to bring my daughter, not yet bat mitzvahed, to see Poindexter in all his counter-culture glory. After beholding the kinky wonders of Psycho Beach, my Ilana would have kissed Alan’s feet.
Flash forward to 2023. Poindexter is gone and the Pterodactyl Club, the one-time cultural capital of Freedom Drive, is goner. But thanks to Nicia Carla and her PaperHouse Theatre, which is marking its return after a years-long hiatus, Hollywood antagonists La Condesa and Madeleiné Astarté (a Succubus and a Virgin Sacrifice back in their Sodom days) are undead again — and will remain so through Nov. 25.
Taking on Busch’s mantle, Carla directs and stars in this stunning revival at 3102 VisArt, a former cafe that’s been converted into an intimate listening room and event space by the folks nextdoor at VisArt Video. It’s tucked into the nether region of the Eastway Crossing strip mall on Eastway Drive – I’m trying to make this little suburban dive sound as risqué as the Pterodactyl!
Walls are black as you walk inside, and hostesses in goth attire and makeup are there to greet you. Whatever Google Maps has told you (it misled both me and my wife Sue on separate occasions), you can now be sure you’re in the right place.
Small as it is, the inner sanctum of VisArt is perfectly sized for Busch’s secret forbidden rites. The seats are soft enough to keep butt burnout at bay for 90 minutes, even if you don’t stretch for intermission and fall prey to the treats in the lobby. Yet sightlines are not ideal according to Sue’s scouting report.
The PaperHouse cast multitasks even more than Busch’s original ensemble, with just six players covering the 14 roles instead of seven. All six are battle-tested in madcap comedy, so this outrage is hardly outside their comfort zones.
Carla probably hasn’t had this much fun onstage since Poindexter directed her as The Witch in Hansel & Gretel. She minces and manipulates here as the Virgin Sacrifice, growing regal and stentorian as theatrical megastar Astarté as she assaults the Left Coast. Opposite her, Ashby Blakely is a steely, sneering diva bridging four millennia as The Succubus, aging gracefully into La Condesa and crossdressing in costume designer Beth Levine Chaitman’s most outré couture.
That isn’t to say that Josh Looney and Charlie Carla are anything less than visions of decadence as Sodomite musclemen Ali and Hujar in complementary S&M outfits and Wagnerian wigs. Carla is already fairly slutty in the opening sketch despite her somewhat revealing white dress, willing to break her hymen with Ali or cut a deal with the cave monster Succubus.
Subsequent scenes in Hollywood and Sin City climax in a couple of startling onstage costume changes, most improbably by Tanya McClellan who snoops into La Condesa’s boudoir as gossip columnist Oatsie Carewe.
Gosh, it’s good to see McClellan back onstage in manic comedy mode. Squinting her snoopiness, she sniffs out the ungodly acts performed by Carla as Astarté on La Condessa’s protégée, luminous Sarah Molloy as flapper Renee Vain, and her meddlesome boy toy, Looney as matinee idol King Carlyle.
Hard times for a vampire? You’ll need to come back after intermission for Blakely’s final transformations. Andrea King’s choreography, on loan from Jane Fonda, elegantly shows off McClellan’s dancing prowess.
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